Armadale by Wilkie Collins

brushing off the dustEvery Friday, in Brushing off the Dust, I revisit one of the many older book reviews written before I founded this blog. Here, I try to prioritise those titles that have really stayed with with me, or which have shaped the course of my subsequent reading adventures in a significant way.


First published: 1866 (Penguin Classics New Edition, 1995)
My copy: bought in paperback
First read and reviewed by me: October 2010

Memorable quote: “I caught myself measuring the doses with my eye, and calculating how many of them would be enough to take a living creature over the border-land between sleep and death.”

Dan Simmons’ captivating fictionalisation of Wilkie Collins in Drood left me yearning to read something by the great man himself. Collins is one of my favourite Victorian novelists and Armadale, though not as consistently paced as, say The Woman in White or The Moonstone has to be one of his best novels. The plot revolves around one of Collins’s favourite tropes, the mysterious double: in this case two young men both with the name of Allan Armadale, a title commanding a rich financial legacy and a less desirable history of murder and betrayal. Like much Victorian sensation fiction, the plot is full of twists, turns, ominous dreams, assumed identities and unlikely coincidences but what holds it all together and makes this novel gripping – rather than simply overblown – is the strength of Collins’ characterisations. He delves brilliantly into the minds of his creations sharing their fantasies, motivations and fears – rational or otherwise. There are also some wonderfully realised supporting characters: a doting old gentleman fostering an outrageous infatuation for a dangerous woman; the doctor of a sinister sanatorium committed only to the pretence of ethical standards; and a bedridden wife besieged by jealousy and hatred towards any woman who even approaches her largely undesirable husband.

The two Armadales could hardly be more different: one is an over-privileged impetuous buffoon while the other is a cautious loner whose belief in dark omens has led to him spending years living in the shadow of his fear that the sins of his father will be revisited on him, the son. Both these deeply flawed individuals can be frustrating at times and the first part of the narrative, which establishes their relationship, does drag in places. But it’s worth persevering as the pace increases quite dramatically from the second third onwards, particularly once Collins has introduced his flame haired femme-fatale.  Lydia Gwilt is a fortune hunter, bigamist, opium addict, poisoner and one of the most fascinating female characters in Victorian fiction. Many nineteenth-century critics were appalled by Miss Gwilt’s immorality, with one reviewer describing her as “One of the most hardened female villains whose devices and desires have ever blackened fiction” (H. F. Chorley in The Athenaeum 2 June 1866). But her depiction is not simply that of a one-dimensional villain. As I followed Lydia’s fortunes, and the fortune hunting that draws her in to the Armadale mystery, I found my reactions to her cycling through a whole range of emotions: horror, sympathy, a hope that she will escape her past and live honestly, but also a perverse desire for her scheme to succeed (since both Armadales are quite frustrating figures who don’t always inspire as much sympathy as they perhaps should).

Lydia Gwilt is the dark and enigmatic heart of this gripping novel which begins in the Alps and ends in a London Sanatorium, taking in Barbados, the Isle of Man, the Norfolk Broads and various European cities along the way. As with all novels in this most melodramatic of genres some suspension of disbelief is required to fully enjoy it, but if you can make that leap, then there’s a lot here to savour.

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